Give generously

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Our Eucharist readings for today align around the theme of generous giving. Read the texts:

Extracts from Psalm 112

1 Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who find great delight in his commands.

3 Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever.

4 Even in darkness light dawns for the upright, for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.

5 Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice.

9 They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor, their righteousness endures forever; their horn will be lifted high in honor.

Extracts from Matthew 6

1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2-4 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Extracts from 2 Corinthians 9

6-8 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 

10-11 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

Key lessons about giving generously

  1. God consistently and insistently calls us to generosity. This giving is to be sacrificial, in other words, we give until it hurts a bit; we give so that we feel the loss a little.
  2. Givers will be rewarded according to their generosity. There is a kind of economy of giving, with a return on our investment, possibly in this life, and certainly in the next.
  3. Giving should be done freely. We should not give grudgingly, reluctantly or out of obligation. We should also not give in order to obtain a reward or recognition – indeed, we should give privately, secretly. Our generous giving is rather motivated by our response to God’s generous giving to us.
Featured image from https://museumnotes.blogspot.com/2017/11/gratitude-and-generosity.html

The cost of stewarding

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Over the past four weeks we’ve been reflecting on stewardship: stewarding our selves, our communion, our things and our world. The reading set for today is Luke 14:25-33, which the NIV titles, ‘The cost of discipleship’. I suggest that there is a similarity between discipleship – which means to follow Christ and model ourselves on him – and stewardship – which means to take care of the things God has entrusted to us to help build the Kingdom of God.

This passage makes it clear that stewardship (like discipleship) is not easy. Two key points emerge:

First, Luke 14:25-27 tells us that stewardship will cost us. This passage is very hard to swallow – Jesus says if we don’t hate our family, we are not worthy to follow him. When we consider Jesus’ Great Commandment – to love God and love our neighbour – we must however conclude that Jesus is not telling us actually to hate our family. That would completely contradict what he repeatedly says and demonstrates in his ministry – to love our neighbours as ourselves.

But he is saying that our love for and commitment to God must be radical. We need to give of ourselves to God, to a point of discomfort, to a point where it is hard. Our giving should not be easy and flippant. It requires something of us that is sacrificial.

Second, Luke 14:28 and 31, and the examples attached to these verses, tells us that our stewardship (or discipleship) must be thoughtful and careful. In both verses he asks something similar: When you prepare to do something, won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost of doing it or consider whether you actually are able to do it? We are not called to a reckless discipleship. It is careful, thoughtful, considered, sober, rational.

Our love for and commitment to God must be considered. We need to give in a way that we can actually give. We need to commit to the long haul. We move into ministry with sober judgement and careful thought.

Featured image from http://notanormalvicar.blogspot.com/2017/10/keep-ploughing-on.html

Stewarding our world

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Father almighty
we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Send us out into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit
To live and work to your praise and glory.

We end each Eucharist service with this prayer. It is the endpoint of the entire service of communion. We do come to be filled, restored and healed; we do come to worship and praise God; we do come for fellowship; we do come to learn; and we do come to celebrate the Eucharist. But the purpose of all of this is to equip and fill us to go out into the world and serve the Lord.

The church is a refuelling station, in which we are filled up and restored, so that we can go out and do God’s work in the world.

Today is the fourth and last Sunday in our stewardship programme.

  1. In the first week, we considered stewarding ourselves;
  2. then stewarding our communion (our church fellowship);
  3. and last week, stewarding our things, particularly our money.
  4. Today, we reflect on what it means to steward the world.

Genesis 2 presents the narrative of God’s creation of humanity. God then placed the man he had created in the Garden of Eden and commissioned him to ‘tend and care for it’; that is, to steward the world. We continue to carry this commission.

Stewarding the world includes a focus on the planet – the earth itself – with all its natural resources: the sky, the oceans, the water, the land, the minerals, the renewable and non-renewable energy resources. We are commissioned to take care of the earth (and indeed the cosmos) – not to exploit, plunder, rape and destroy. ‘Tend and care’ are gentle, kind, caring, nurturing words, to describe the relationship we ought to have to the world around us.

In addition, stewarding the world includes a focus on its people – on all of humankind – regardless of anything (religion, race, gender, politics, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, and so on). We are to be Christ’s presence among humanity – his hands, his feet, his eyes, his mouth, his heart (as Saint Teresa of Ávila may have written – see video below). It is unfortunate that many Christians see their Christ-like presence in the world as reduced just to fighting against two issues: human sexuality and abortion. While these are important topics to engage, Jesus’ own presence in the world focused pervasively on fighting for love, kindness, justice, inclusion. To steward the people of this world is to imitate Christ’s engagement with humankind.

Appropriately, today is All Saints Day, the day on which we commemorate and celebrate the lives of the saints. My church is named after St Stephen, who is described in Acts 6-7. Carrying his name, we in our parish are invited to adopt Stephen as a model or example for our lives. Stephen was a young deacon, whose ministry lasted less than a year. A deacon is a servant, who works out in the community, helping the poor and marginalised. Stephen is described as being “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. He was a bold preacher, delivering the longest sermon in the book of Acts. It resulted in his murder, at the age of 29. As he died, his last words were to forgive those who stoned him.

Stephen is a shining example of stewarding the world. He was a servant to the people of God and to people seeking God.

Let us each take up our own role, in our own place, in our own way, using our own Spirit-given gifts, to love and serve the world.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord
In the name of Christ.
Amen

Painting of the saints by Fra Angelico (in the 1400s) from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_Saints%27_Day
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7ymxW3rndk

Eternal perspective

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The ‘reversal of fortunes‘ is one of the central themes in Luke’s Gospel of Christ. The reversal involves a switching around of power and privilege in society. We think of Mary’s, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” and, “he has filled the hungry with goo things but has sent the rich away empty” from Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55. And of Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4:16-21 (though the reversal is less clear), where he says, “he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” And Jesus’ famous, “There are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last” in Luke 13:30. Indeed, there are numerous examples in Luke’s Gospel.

But this reversal of fortunes is demonstrated most unequivocally and powerfully in Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection in Luke 22-24. When all seems lost – when the worst imaginable outcome occurs – we still remember Jesus’ words that he would rise on the third day. And indeed he does! What was intended as an annihilation of the Son of God and indeed of God’s entire plan for the salvation of humankind, turns into the absolute accomplishment of that plan!

Thanks be to God for the reversal of fortunes!

Our reading for today is Luke 6:20-21:

Looking at his disciples, he said:

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

We see again the reversal of fortunes in this passage (mirrored in the woes that Jesus proclaims in Luke 6:24-25 a couple of verses later):

  • Poor > yours is the Kingdom of God
  • Hunger > satisfied
  • Weep > laugh

But what is additionally striking in this passage is the emphasis on time. Particularly in the second and third blessings, Jesus contrasts ‘now’ with the future “you will”. This suggests that what is true now, will not be true for always. While in the first sentence, the phrases are both in the present tense – “are” and “is” – which suggests that the future improvement to our lot can be tasted now already.

It seems that there is folding in of time in Jesus’ understanding of human life. Past, present and future are not as differentiated for God as they are for us humans. For God – being outside of time and space – past, present and future all co-exist. But for us – being bound within time and space – Jesus’ message here is that the reversal of fortune – from struggle to contentment – is something sure and guaranteed that we can look forward to, and even enjoy in moments right now.

All of this points us towards adopting an eternal perspective in which we are encouraged to look at the world and our life circumstance, not just as it is right now, but as it is within the context of out eternal existence. This life, with its challenges and troubles, is not all there is. Indeed, this physical life is but a blink in the life we can continue to enjoy in the presence of God for eternity.

And much can change between now and then. The reversal of fortunes principle continues to emphasise that God will set right what is wrong in the world. And that whatever suffering or oppression or poverty we experience at this time, will not last forever. It will switch. God will set all things right.

As we continue through our stewardship programme, and particularly this week as reflect on how we steward our things and especially our money, let us hold this eternal perspective and the reversal of fortunes in mind. What we do now, has an impact on the future. Our giving of our hearts to Christ now will bring a return on investment, sooner or later. Giving generously now may be uncomfortable, but will repeat rewards that are greatly to be desired.

Featured image from https://latterdaysaintinsights.byu.edu/en/divine-discontent-an-invitation-to-improve/

Stewarding our things

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 20-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary after that.

Today is our third Sunday in our four-part series on stewardship. We have already reflected on stewarding ourselves and stewarding our communion (our church fellowship). Today, we reflect on stewarding our things. By ‘things’ I mean all the things we have or own – our house, our car, our furniture, the space in the place we live, our books, our garden, and our money.

I’m going to focus on our money in this message, because money is in many ways a proxy for all our things – most of our things were purchased with money. But also, money is needed for the church to to be church and to grow – there are real costs associated with operating a church – salaries, rent, water and lights, supplies, and so on. So, we do have to think about the real costs of serving the communion (the local church) and of building God’s Kingdom (the mission).

In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul writes an extended passage about giving. The context is that the church in Corinth had promised to give Paul some money towards the spreading of the Gospel, but had not actually paid it over. So Paul tries in this passage to persuade them to pay it over, not out of obligation, but freely. This makes this passage quite relevant for the modern church, as we also need money from our members, but want members to give freely.

There are four primary themes about giving in this extended passage:

GIVE WHAT YOU CAN, ACCORDING TO YOUR MEANS

8:3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able…

8:11 …[give] according to your means.

8:12 For … the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

GIVE FREELY, BY YOUR OWN WILL

8:3-4 …they gave …even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.

8:8 I am not commanding you…

8:10 Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so.

8:12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable

9:7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion

GIVE GENEROUSLY, SO IT’S UNCOMFORTABLE

8:2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.

8:5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.

8:7 Since you excel in everything… see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

9:5-7 So I thought it necessary to … finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given. Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously… God loves a cheerful giver.

GIVE, AND YOU WILL RECEIVE

9:8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

9:10-11 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

Perhaps the most striking verse in these chapters is an extract from 2 Corinthians 8:7, “see that you also excel in this grace of giving”. Grace in Greek is charis which means a gift (like the gifts of the Spirit). Paul views giving as a gift, a privilege, an opportunity and something that God enables us to do.

As we come closer to the time when we make a commitment to contribute financially to the work of the church, I pray that God will stimulate in you this sense of the opportunity and gift of giving, and that you will be able to give freely and generously, according to your means.

Features image from:
https://elements.envato.com/coins-in-hand-hands-counting-a-few-euro-coins-a-ha-Z47B9H6

Fragrant Offering

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Today is the first Monday in Holy Week. The video below is a very brief (5-minute) reflection on our Gospel reading for today: John 12:1-11. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume called Nard. Judas reprimands her for wasting money that should rather be given to the poor. But Jesus speaks up for her saying that she has done a good thing for Jesus, who will be with them for just a little while, while the poor will always be with us. This narrative reminds us of the need for all of us to pour ourselves out for others, like Mary did with her perfume and Jesus did with is life.

2020.04.06_nard

Featured image of Spikenard flowers from http://www.draganacmonastery.com/product/nard/

Shrewd Christian

Our reading for today (Luke 16:1-9) has to be one of the oddest of Jesus’ parables. Here it is in full:

“There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’

“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

“So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ “‘Three thousand liters of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifteen hundred.’

“Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “‘Thirty tons of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it twenty-four.’

“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

Instead of preaching a sermon on this topic, I engaged a few of the parishioners in enacting the scene. This service took place at Irene Homes for intellectually disabled women, a ministry setting that brings me great joy. The ladies participated wholeheartedly in the acting out the story, as you can see in the video taken by someone in the congregation.


The moral of the story is that we should use what we have in life (what Jesus refers to as ‘worldly wealth’) to build positive relationships with people and to invest in the development of the world. While the people we invest in might not open their homes to us, as the dishonest manager in Jesus’ story hoped. But God will open his eternal home to us. And that’s a worthwhile investment!

Poverty

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Poverty is one of the great challenges facing South Africa today, with unemployment rates above 25% for the population as a whole and around 55% for young adults, and with poverty still running along racial and gender lines (StatsSA). It is a challenge for the country and for the church. It is a challenge we try to deal with in our mission to the world, and it is a challenge we try to deal with among ourselves. Many of us are ourselves struggling with poverty.

What is it that God expects of us regarding poverty?
And how do we do something about poverty, when we ourselves are poor? 

Luke 12 presents to us Jesus’ perspective on poverty, which is essentially that we should not worry. “Don’t be afraid, little flock”, he says. “Do not worry”. “Do not be afraid”. He regales us with analogies of ravens, sparrows, flowers and hairs on our head. Analogies that speak of God’s provision, God’s providence, God’s care. “You are worth far more than many sparrows”.

How does Jesus expect us to ‘not worry’ about things that are so worrisome? Are we simply to sing the “Don’t worry, be happy” song? or Hakuna Matata?

Jesus reveals in Luke 12 that not worrying about poverty (or any other life challenge) is not about switching off to poverty or denying reality. Rather, it about seeing a more powerful reality that lies beyond the present; a world that lies beyond this present world. He invites us to recognise that there is a world to come that is more important than this one and more enduring. It is not that this world, this life, is unimportant! Clearly, from Jesus’ behaviour and teaching, we know that this life and its challenges are important. But there is an even more important world to come. And it our investment into that world that really matters, that counts in the short and long run.

Our capacity see that world rests in faith. It is “by faith” that we see that world. Faith is the central topic of Hebrews 11. The writer reminds us that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). Paul similarly writes, “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). In this chapter from Hebrews, the writer uses the phrase “by faith” 21 times to emphasise that the legacy we inherit from our biblical ancestors is one of faith. While we typically want an instant return on our faith investment, our ancestors were willing to wait generations for the return:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth (Heb 11:13).

Abraham was able to see the future through God’s eyes. He heard and believed God’s promise that he would become the father of many nations (Genesis 12:2, 15:5 and 22:17), even though he did not see this for himself in his lifetime. He could see it because he could see through God’s eyes. Through the eyes of faith. It is these eyes that we need to be able to see the world beyond this one, to see God’s provision in the midst of hardship, to see God’s promises fulfilled even if not yet. These are the eyes of faith. These are the eyes of God.

And so Jesus says,

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Luke 12:33-34).

This is a message not just for those with money (though we, especially, should heed it), but also for those without (think of the story of the widow’s mite in Luke 21:1-4). This what God calls his people to:

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless. Plead the case of the widow (Isaiah 1:17).

It starts at home, within the church community:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. …And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need (Acts 4:32-35).

Featured image from: https://images.app.goo.gl/iy3XkCppMMj5g2QG9